Three thousand years of Archaeology

by The Curious Scribbler

I had an enjoyable day at the Morlan Centre in Aberystwyth on Saturday, at the Archaeology Day organized by the Dyfed Archaeological Trust.  The remit of archaeologists today stretches from the very ancient to the extremely recent,  and this was reflected in the range of talks.  The morning started with the archaeology of yesterday while by the afternoon we were taken back three thousand years to the beginning of the first millienium BC.

Alice Pyper had been having fun exploring the archaeology of Llyn y Fan Fach, the glacial lake which now supplies Llanelli with a clean water supply.  It was not always thus: the water system was built by conscientious objectors during the first world war.   Some thirty of them were compelled to live in two drafty huts  at 1200 feet above sea level to work on the project.  Field archaeology involved excavating and recording the footings of these huts. Documentary sources including newspapers and humorous sketches by the objectors fleshed out the story.  This workforce was of Englishmen who had already served time in prison for refusing to fight.  Michael Freeman pointed out that in Wales objectors were less harshly treated, and that most of the thirty conscientious objectors in Ceredigion were not imprisoned and were allowed to keep their jobs.

Also representing the very recent past is the built heritage of the 20th century.  Susan Fielding of the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales treated us to photographs of a splendid succession of architectural gems or carbuncles, some listed, others already demolished.  The architects of the Percy Thomas Partnership ( familiar to us here for much of the Penglais Campus) kept cropping up, with Harlech College, Trinity Chapel at Sketty, and the soon-to-be-demolished Broadcasting House at Llandaff, all redolent of the 1960s.   The Prestatyn Holiday Camp ( 1935) and the Rhyl Sun Centre (1980) have both gone, both extravagant expressions of their times, and dear to many people’s holiday reminiscences.


Rhyl Sun Centre by Gillinson Barnett & Partners
Source:Architectural Press/Archive RIBA Collections

The Shire Hall in Mold, dubbed Britain’s leading ugliest building, and the Wrexham Police station are brutalist buildings which will perhaps not be mourned too much.  Still standing, and crying out for a role in a brooding  TV Drama is Ysgol Syr Thomas Jones at Amlwch – one of the very first 1950s comprehensive schools.

Less is sometimes more, and it was strangely gratifying to learn from Clwyd-Powys Archaeologist Paul Belford that we really don’t know whether Offa’s Dyke has a great deal to do with King Offa, when it was built, or quite what it was for!  Opportunities to excavate this world heritage site are few and far between, but one did arise from the actions of a Chirk man who bulldozed 50 yards of it in order to build a stable. ( His ignorance of its historic significance saved him from prosecution in 2014).  Perhaps this vibe for vandalism is in the air around Chirk.  Paul showed us a lidar image of the grounds of Chirk castle.  In the 17th century Landscape Architect William Emes flattened much more than 50 yards of it to create smooth parkland, and submerged a further length of it in an ornamental lake!

Low water levels in 2018 revealed Offa’s Dyke in the lake at Chirk Castle. Picture: The Shropshire Star

Two afternoon sessions concerned the days of the iron age hillfort, a period lasting from at least 1000 years BC.  Hillforts are scattered like measles across the whole of the map of Wales, and with techniques of  aerial photography and lidar more are still being discovered.  Either they are on hilltops with ridge fortifications all the way round, or they are promontory hill forts, situated on the edge of a cliff or at the confluence between two valleys such that fortifications are not needed at the steeper sides.  The archaeologists have been seeking evidence both within the enclosures, where  groups of round houses were situated, and outside them where burials, and farming actvities took place.  Ken Murphy rounded off the day with an account of the iron age chariot burial discovered last autumn in a field not far from a hillfort at an undisclosed location in west Pembrokeshire.  Being buried along with your two wheeled chariot and your horse requires a pretty extensive hole and this type of burial is well known from East Yorkshire. The chariot burial discovered at the evocatively named village of Wetwang, revealed the human skeleton curled  up between the wheels of his chariot, and the horse laid transversely at his head.  The limey soil chemistry in east Yorkshire does not dissolve the bones.

In the Welsh burial bronze fragments of the bit, bridle and horse ornaments testifies to the horse, and an iron sword to the warrior, but their bones are long dissolved.  The iron rims of the wheels and the imprint of the wooden chariot were found.  These items are undergoing conservation at the National Museum of Wales and will then be put on display.

Photo credit: Archaeologists exposing the wheels of the Pembrokeshire chariot.
 Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales

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Wild winds at Tanybwlch

by The Curious Scribbler

Tanybwlch beach on Sunday morning

The only people on Tanybwlch beach on Sunday morning were the photographers sheltering amongst the boulders.  Every wave rollicking in from the south west broke over the harbour jetty,  creating a  continuous plume of spray interspersed with great explosions of water hurled high into the air.  Sometimes the green and white column at the end disappeared entirely from view.

Storm waves over the jetty on Sunday 9 February 2020

Explosive waves at Tanybwlch

The incoming waves become trapped in the angle between the beach and the jetty such that big new waves conflict with the backwash from the preceding one, and create a churning mass of white water throwing up outward-bound crests.  It was in this churning cauldron that I spotted my old friend the dragon log, whose progress northward along Tanybwlch beach I have noted over the winter.  More of a sea monster now, it lay crocodile-like in the foam, then turned seaward and seemed to plunge through the incoming waves.

The dragon log trapped to windward of the jetty

The dragon log broaching the waves.

Sometimes the dragon head reared up, then the curved flank dived under the next breaker.

As the tide went out I think the dragon made it out beyond the jetty and has presumably continued its journey northward.  I wonder where it will next make landfall and whether its shapely head has avoided too much of a battering in the sea.

I walked southward along the beach as the tide dropped and the afternoon sun coloured the day.  I was eager to see how the storm had re-arranged the beach, and found a beautiful expanse of coarse sand below and beyond the concrete bar half way along. The heavier gusts here whipped up a sandstorm so that I often had to turn around to protect my face.

The stone sea defences are failing as water rushes up onto the shingle bar

The sea has been crossing the shingle bar, and the most recent sea defences, the big stones placed along the seaward side of the bar have been steadily moving down the beach as the backwash  sweeps out the sand on which they were set.  Water passing over and through the shingle bar has created two huge pools on the farmland which are already visited by oystercatcher and curlew.

The persistence of these pools has waxed and waned over the last three decades as ditches have been dug to drain the land.  However the vegetation of the larger pool below Alltwen has once again been reverting to salt marsh, and Storm Ciara is hastening this advance.

The big pool below Alltwen

A second seawater pool forming on Tanybwlch flats

I look forward to the day when the pool becomes permanent, and the sea breaks through to meet the Ystwyth at its tidal end.  We may be needing a footbridge to complete Nanny Goats Walk before too long.

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By the Wind Sailors on Tanybwlch beach

by The Curious Scribbler

Velella velella on Tanybwlch beach

I walked Tanybwlch beach today in search of velellas, having noticed Chloe Griffith’s post on Facebook last night.  Velella velella, or By the Wind Sailor is an oceanic ‘jellyfish’, but not your usual jellyfish:  instead it belongs to a class called the Hydrozoans, and is a colonial animal made up of several different types of polyps doing different jobs (feeding, defence, or reproduction) .  Under a transparent float hang many tiny stinging polyps, which catch the plankton of the open ocean.  The diagonally placed sail projecting above the water should ensure that the float moves across the wind, and the velellas remain at sea.  It is a unique species,  there is just one kind, and they circulate in all world’s warm or temperate oceans.

Stranded By the Wind Sailors amongst the wrack

I found them, amongst the rolls of wrack and kelp on the lower strand line, but how tiny they were!  Every one I found was just two centimeters long, shorter than a single joint of my finger. Velellas can be 7 cm long, and I have seen them this size in the open ocean, bobbing past at sea.  Our stranding of velellas are mere babies, and judging by the uniformity all started life from the same hatching. Drying in the winter sunshine they look and feel to the touch like fragments of stiff cellophane, with a hint of blue around the underside.

Velella velella on Tanybwlch beach

Velella velella on Tanybwlch beach, showing the projecting sail to catch the wind

It was a lovely morning, and I noted that my friend the dragon log has moved once more along the beach, and, after a period on its side and looking less dragon-like has again righted itself with head aloft.  It remains a pleasure, as I remarked last autumn, to note how very few items of domestic plastic rubbish are to be found among the driftwood and seaweed.

Wrack and kelp on Tanybwlch beach

There is though, a still abundant category of man-made waste,  and that is plastic rope and string.  What is it about fishermen and little bits of string?  Especially common are short pieces about 6 inches in length of green or blue plastic string with frayed cut ends.  In a short distance one can gather a pocketful, either here or at Borth or Ynyslas.

Velella velella on Tanybwlch beach

There must be an explanation.  Do fishermen tie closed their lobster pots and cut the string each time they open them? If this is the explanation why cannot they use biodegradable hemp which would decay after its single use rather than surviving in the ocean, breaking into tinier pieces for ever, and clogging the stomachs of filter feeding marine life?  Or they could take their pieces of string home and put them in the bin?

Our West Wales beaches are far closer to pristine than they were 20 years ago.  If we can identify the reason for the remaining offenders perhaps a small change in behaviour would do the trick.

 

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Dragon on the move

by the Curious Scribbler

The Tanybwlch Dragon has moved several hundred yards along the beach during last Saturday’s high seas.  Once again it has beached itself gazing out to sea, its lower jaw a little more abraded, but its eager expression is now almost as convincing from the left flank as from the right.

Right cheek

Left cheek

Seas have been breaking over the stony strand which separates the beach from the low lying Tanybwlch flats, the location of summer trotting races, and formerly, of the Aberystwyth Show.   Once more a huge pool has formed below Alltwen, beloved of gulls and waders.

The brackish pool on Tanybwlch flats

Over the years there have been a number of efforts to drain this area and return it to pasture, but this seems to be a losing battle and each winter the lake forms again, and as it drains away rushes prosper at the expense of grass.  It is highly likely that we will see the day when the sea breaks through the pebble bar and our walks along this wild beach will be curtailed part way along.

The Dragon has migrated along Tanybwlch beach

The strand line was not as free from human debris as when I commented two weeks ago, but as with the comments from my reader about the Gower, fragments of netting and other fisherman’s waste were far more abundant than household plastic.  The white lumps on the strand line were not polystyrene but cuttlefish bone, and the fluffy froth just natural sea spume.

Cuttlefish on the strandline at Tanybwlch beach

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A Dragon on Tanybwlch beach

By The Curious Scribbler

There is a new arrival on Tanybwlch beach, remarkably in the shape of a dragon, looking out to sea.

Dragon’s head likeness

A large tree trunk, felicitously worn by the abrasive boulders has beached itself high on the shore near the south end of the beach during a recent storm, and presented itself to best advantage in this weekend’s winter sunshine.

Tree trunk at Tanybwlch beach

Walking the strand line, I was also impressed by the scarcity of plastic waste.  I wonder whether this is entirely down to the dedicated beach cleaners who regularly patrol our beaches, or whether, (dare one hope?) the rate at which rubbish is discarded into the Irish sea is at last diminishing.

I used to beach clean here regularly a decade ago when we recorded all the items for the Marine Conservation Society records. In those days one did not go far to fill a sack with single-use plastic and hard plastic crates and bits of rope.  Yesterday there were a few bottle tops and fragments of plastic amongst the dried wrack, but the waste was predominantly what it should be: biodegradable seaweed and sticks washed down the rivers in the recent rains.

Driftwood on the strandline

How much easier on the eye than a strandline of coloured waste.  Aberstwyth Beach Buddies and Surfers against Sewage are to be congratulated for their action and campaigning, but so too is everyone who now chooses not to chuck their rubbish into the sea in the first place!  I remember standing on a cross channel ferry in the 1970s and watching aghast as a kitchen hand emerged on the deck below and tipped all the ferry’s catering packaging off the stern to bob away in our wake.  I have no doubt he was following orders. Fifty years later the public all have camera phones and I don’t think many companies would risk being observed.

Driftwood on the strandline at Tanybwlch beach

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Underground in mid Wales

by The Curious Scribbler

It can be a mistake to write about something one knows very little about.  Today I make an exception, having  attended a fascinating Historical Society lecture by Ioan Lord, a Ceredigion-born young man who is studying the mining history of mid Wales.

We learnt that the hilly country of mid Wales is littered with ore-bearing lodes, cracks in the rock of varying lengths and sizes all running more or less northeast – southwest across the landscape. For more than 4000 years these have been exploited by miners. Bronze age workings extracted the copper which along with Cornish tin would be made into bronze, Romans extracted lead, the Society of Mines Royal exploited the silver which was for a time formed into coin at Sir John Middleton’s mint at Aberystwyth castle. In the18th and 19th century a proliferation of mining companies extracted lead, copper and zinc on a massive scale.  This was the era for which we have the best historical record, photographs, newspapers and mining journals reveal the ambition and the highfalutin names of these speculative ventures, suggesting riches such were to be found around the world.

Miners Cwmystwyth in 1911

The ‘Welsh Potosi’ Lead and Copper mine was named after the highly productive mines of Bolivia. ‘Welsh Broken Hill’ Mine echoes Australia,  at Ponterwd we find the ‘California of Wales’, while Moelfre Wheal Fortune reminds us of the tin industry of Cornwall and the many miners who migrated to Wales at this time.

The industry was gruelling and life expectancy was poor, but the mines nontheless paid handsomely in their day.  There are local families today such as the Raws of Cwmystwyth who trace their ancestry to Cornishman James Raw, Mine Captain of the Cwmystwyth mine in 1850.  Ioan cited records showing that the Oliver family of Cwmystwyth were taking home £200 a month in 1810.

By 1930 there was no more mining and the workings lay abandoned.  Ioan and fellow enthusiasts are exploring this forgotten frontier, equipped with lights and modern caving equipment they find their way into the old shafts and adits, stepping into spaces last visited more than  two hundred years ago.  From time to time, on Facebook’s You know you’re from Aberystwyth when you… I have watched their videos as they squeeze along narrow adits ( tunnels) or abseil down vertical shafts.  They find abandoned wooden ladders, barrows, tools, shoes belonging to the miners, abandoned as it were yesterday.

This is more than sightseeing: their mines research is clarifying much about the history of mid Wales.   In the 17th century people tended to call all old mine workings ‘ Roman Mines’ but modern discoveries which can be carbon dated such as wooden tools  or charcoal on smelting floors have now confirmed Roman mining at Penpompren, and Cwmystwyth.  An exciting discovery, lying in a 19th Century adit was a wooden spade, typically Roman in style, which has been carbon dated to 4BC-71AD.  It had presumably been washed in there from the old workings. Hammer stones, probably from Llanrhystud beach bear witness to Bronze age workings at Copa Hill, Cwmystwyth.

On another occasion, when exploring the 18th century working which was Thomas Powell of Nanteos’ Great Adit at Bwlchgwyn they came upon a stone marker neatly engraved TP 1742.   Other sources tell us that Thomas Powell was in vigorous conflict with Sir Hugh Myddleton and  the Society of Mines Royal which had claimed mining rights for the Crown.  Ioan’s survey indeed confirms that Powell’s mine and his marker stone encroached well into Royal Mines territory!

The multi talented Ioan Lord, is currently working on a PhD at Cardiff but has also been a familiar face operating the Rheidol Valley steam trains. His very handsomely produced book on the mines of Cwm Rheidol and Ystumtuen was published last year by the Rheidol Railway and can be bought at their shop.

https://images-na.ssl-images-amazon.com/images/I/512OvlqLEuL._SX363_BO1,204,203,200_.jpg

Ioan Lord is one of the Directors of the Cambrian Mines Trust which was incorporated as a Company in 2012 with the objective of preservation and restoration of mining remains.  Particularly challenging in today’s risk-averse climate will be their objective to re-open underground workings for the public benefit.  In the meantime I do enjoy the videos, without risk of either hitting my head or obliterating, with my 21st century feet, the  ancient footprints of miners and even horses preserved in the mud of the adits.

 

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A blot on the landscape

by The Curious Scribbler,

I was astounded yesterday to see the new building on the Plas Morolwg site which overlooks the harbour at Aberystwyth.  Plonked like a giant brick on the skyline is a building of unsurpassed ordinariness.  A box designed  to contain seven residential flats rises four storeys high, a positive beacon to philistine development.  What were our Councillors and Planning Department thinking of?

The new Residential Block on Penyrangor

Penyrangor is a charming small road by which one approaches Tanybwlch beach and is flanked by squat bungalows and houses of early 20th century design.  Newer development behind this rank was somewhat controversial when the railway cutting was filled in and built over, but all  are two storey in height and designed with at least some respect for their position at the foot of beautiful Pendinas.  This monstrous cube is totally out of scale with its neighbourhood, perched on the top of rising ground above the road, and totally dominating the  other developments of flats around the harbour, let alone the regular housing.

The new block viewed from the harbour

Not long ago I looked at the Planning proposal to demolish and replace Bay View, one of the small houses on Penyrangor, a 1930s cottage which started its life as a tea house tucked into the small  quarry on the left as you approach the sea.  Reading the applicant’s proposal made one feel that landscape protection is alive and well. The report alluded to the Special Landscape Area in which it is set, and presented a sensitive design for a modern energy-efficient, two-storey building which respected the setting and would be tucked in such that the low pitched roof would not break the skyline above the sheltering rock face.

The site of Bay View, the old cottage now cleared away

No such considerations seem to have influenced the Wales and West Housing Association.  Indeed I’ve just been looking at their planning application and found two remarkably unhelpful projections of how the development will look.

The bird’s eye view hardly helps in predicting how we land-born humans will perceive the relative heights of the buildings around this development.

Meanwhile a Side Section elevation shows the ghosts of the adjoining houses looming tall behind the new block.  I have no idea where one would have to stand to see this perspective!  Indeed I suspect there is there is no such possibility.  My photo shows the same houses to be half the height of the block in the foreground.

The New Residential apartment block at Plas Morolwg, by Wales and West Housing Association

It seems a great pity that such misleading schematic drawings have, I presume, allowed the impact of this building to be overlooked until it is too late and the frame is up.  Its eventual appearance, it seems, will be  that of a block escaped from Penparcau, with similar glass fronted balconies, but some render and wood-effect cladding on the exterior.

The former Plas Morolwg was widely-known locally as ‘Colditz’ on account of its forbidding exterior, and its later claim to fame was as the setting for the lowest and most disagreeable characters in the TV show Hinterland.  The opportunity to replace it with something reflecting better on Aberystwyth has been avoided.

A view from the harbour.  Nothing else breaks the skyline as this does.

 

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Veteran tree in danger at Hafod

by The Curious Scribbler

There is much disquiet at Hafod at the impending loss of another of its veteran beech trees, one which stands beside the little stone bridge on the drive just below the spur path up to the Bedford Monument and Mariamne’s Garden.

The veteran beech tree stands below the drive through the Hafod Estate

This is probably the tallest of Hafod’s surviving ancient beech trees, drawn upwards  in a fairly sheltered position in the lea of the steeply rising hillside.  It is also one the best known, because only two of the big beeches are easily visible from the road through the estate.

Unfortunately it drew attention to itself last September by dropping a large branch, which fell harmlessly into the stream valley below.   As a result, a much earlier bough loss became visible to the passer by and was noticed by Jim Ralph the NRW Local Area  Manager responsible for Hafod.   Higher up the tree, well above the recently-lost branch, an old tear is visible which is flanked by the curved buttresses of wound-healing wood on either side.  I would guess this injury is several decades old.

The veteran beech below Mariamne’s garden

However its potential to shed further branches came to mind, and when Health and Safety collides with Conservation the the latter is seldom the winner.  Expert opinion of an arboriculturist identified the tree as a ‘moderate’ threat, further branch fall could occur, the branch could fall onto the road, there could be a passerby on that road at the moment when it falls.  The recommendation was that it should be felled to a tall stump.

Hafod residents are so upset at the prospect of loosing this lovely tree that a few weeks ago a petition was launched on Change.org which has already attracted more than 200 signatories.  I attended a meeting recently at which an articulate group expressed their views to NRW.  Tellingly, all were willing to see the road closed through the estate if such a course of action would save the tree by reducing public access to its vicinity.

In a wide ranging discussion it was asserted by the residents and confirmed by Dave Newnham, the Hafod Estate Manager, that a greater risk of being struck by a falling tree is posed by the large Douglas firs and other conifers adjoining the road and paths on Hafod. The Local Area Manager did not disagree with this opinion, but explained that the conifers are not subject to similar levels of inspection and risk assessment.  As anyone who has walked through a conifer plantation after a storm knows, perfectly healthy trees may blow over, their root plate lifted clean out of the ground.  Which trees may fall is unpredictable, so the crop is not inspected.  Wind-blow is an accepted risk.

It seems that the collapse of a piece off a veteran tree cannot be an accepted risk in terms of NRW management,  so any veteran beech faces a similar fate.  Just such a scenario was played out at Hafod ten years ago when the then Forestry Commission Local Manager’s eye fell upon a beautiful tree in a group below Pant Melyn, not far from the footpath to the Cascade Cavern, (locally known as the Robber’s cave).

The hollow beech at Pant Melyn, Hafod, in 2009

The tree was huge and  healthy, but had at its base a hollow trunk into which it was possible for a small person to squeeze. A specialist report employing sonic tomography confirmed the obvious, that the tree was hollow on one side, and despite an inconclusive debate as to the relative strength of a rod and a cylinder of wood, the tree was duly felled to a high stump.  The Hafod Trust argued passionately for its retention, but to no avail. The case for its destruction was enhanced by the fact that the route to the Cavern Cascade is a public footpath, and families often paused to rest and enjoy that very tree.

The hollow beech at Cae Melyn, Hafod, in 2009 was deemed unsafe, and was cut down

There are  probably a score of  other fine beeches, dating from Thomas Johnes’s time on the Hafod Estate, and fortunately most of them are further from a road.  For the time being this is their salvation, for NRW are unlikely to send out specialist arboriculturalists to inspect them all.  But if they did, probably none would be given a clean bill of health for the 21st century.

Current interpretation by NRW of the risk of litigation appears to be that the further from the car park you are when felled by a tree, the less responsible they, (the landowner), are likely to be considered!  Across the UK about 4 people per year are killed by a falling tree, a minute contribution to overall human mortality.  But for this reason, the veteran trees which draw people to Hafod will all be, sooner or later, at risk.

A change of policy at a high level would be needed to overturn the current thinking. The petition to National Resources Wales  is at https://www.change.org/p/nastural-resource-wales-to-support-local-veteran-trees-of-hafod

 

 

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Mrs Johnes’ Garden at Hafod

by The Curious Scribbler

In the summer of 1788 Jane Johnes wrote to her brother John Johnes of Dolaucothi describing her garden at Hafod  as ” in high beauty” and “full of flowers”.  Two hundred and thirty years is a long time ago, and for much of the recent hundred there was nothing to boast about at Hafod.  So it is pleasing this summer to be able once more to echo those words, as the  borders fill out with recently replanted herbaceous perennials and a glut of multi-headed foxgloves.

Foxgloves in the borders in Mrs Johnes’ garden Hafod

The restoration began with the removal of the sitka spruce plantation 10 year ago and the shrubs around the perimeter are now up to 7 years’ established.  Recently, pride of place has been held by the scented Philadelphus, the gleaming white blooms of Rosa x alba Semi Plena, and the arching briars of Shailer’s White Moss Rose.

Rosa x alba Semi Plena

Rosa Shailer’s White Moss

The Hafod Trust  received donations towards the planting of the garden from the Finnis Scott Foundation, and from the Welsh Historic Gardens Trust.   With the final planting phase and a lavish application of rich organic mulch in the autumn of last year the garden has now turned a corner, and is developing the frothy abundance of a proper garden.  The foxgloves are natives which, finding themselves in such a rich environment, sent up as many as half a dozen flower spikes from every plant.  The two or three welsh poppies planted two years ago now have spawned a host of seedlings, while patches of Doronicum, Chelone, Lysimachia, Veronicastrum and  Elecampane jockey for position amongst the shrubs.

The Cardiganshire Horticultural Society visited at the end of June and despite persistent rain enjoyed a number of short talks about the garden.

The Cardiganshire Horticultual Society visits Mrs Johnes’ Flower Garden, Hafod

Historian Jennie Macve described its place in Garden History.   In 1787 Johnes visited Rev W. Gilpin and told him that his chief guide in laying out his grounds at Hafod had been Rev William Mason’s lengthy poetic work, ‘The English Garden’.   In volume four of this work, Mason (who laid out the garden at Nuneham Courtney in Oxfordshire) gives his prescription for his then innovative style of flower garden, with its circuit gravel walk, its flower beds cut out of shaven turf forming winding grass paths between, its thickets of shrubs and colourful flowers. Visitors to Hafod described the garden lying, like a jewel in the wilderness, glimpsed briefly from the wooded heights of Gentleman’s Walk on the south bank of the Ystwyth, or appearing suddenly to the walker approaching on the gentler Lady’s Walk.

Jennie also revealed that although the Coade stone heads of a Nymph and a Satyr which form the keystones of the two garden entrances bear the date 1793 it is unclear when they were installed there.  The door arches as seen today were heavily restored in the 1980s when the garden was derelict and the original Coade stone heads had already found their way into Margaret Evans’s Collection, which now resides in the Ceredigion Museum.  The heads in the garden today are perfect replicas in resin.  Oddly, none of the contemporary descriptions mention these arches, or the stone heads.  It is even possible  that these elaborate doorways were installed by a later owner, perhaps the Duke of Northumberland, using second-hand Coade stone ornament. We just do not know.

The original Coade Stone heads, now in the Ceredigion Museum

She also viewed with caution the designation as an ‘American Garden’.  Only one contemporary visitor who left a written record describes the presence of American plants.  What is clear though is that Jane Johnes was a keen plantswoman,  the Johneses employed able gardeners, and that they corresponded about plants with their friends Sir Robert Liston and his wife, who cultivated an acclaimed American Garden at their home in Edinburgh.  Plants enthusiasts, then as now, invariably seek out and exchange rare plants new to horticulture.  Just as the Wollemi pine and the tree fern Dicksonia antarctica have become the must-have plants of today, Jane and the Listons would have sought to obtain the new.  In the late eighteenth century much of the new was being imported by plant collectors working the eastern seaboard of the USA.  Very few plants had yet been imported from the far east, and the many exotic Chinese and Japanese garden plants so familiar today were quite unknown.

Landscape architect Ros Laidlaw was also present to explain how she had selected the plants for Mrs Johnes’ garden entirely from species and cultivars known to be available to British gardeners in the eighteenth century.  This was quite a challenging task, for some, such as the fragrant North American shrub Comptonia asplenifolia have fallen from popular use and no longer appear in nurserymen’s lists, whilst for many other plants, improved hybrid versions have now largely replaced the original species.  The roses I alluded to at the beginning are named cultivar Old Roses with an established history,  the fragrant Philadelphus coronarius has open yellow-centred single flowers, quite like a Eucryphia bloom, rather than the familiar double flowers of modern garden cultivars.

The modern restoration does not attempt to reproduce the layout of the original garden which would have had many brilliant island beds, probably geometrically arranged and cut out of the shaven turf.  Such a  garden would be extremely labour-intensive to care for, and is best enjoyed by small groups of people strolling through the sinuous paths inspecting the plantings.  In its present form the garden offers historical authenticity in the path layout and the selection of species in the perimeter border, while the central lawn has made possible events such as the phenomenally successful Foxglove Fair which in early May saw as many as 2000 visitors enjoying food, shopping and entertainment under a brilliant and cloudless sky.

Crowds descended on the Foxglove Fair in 12 May

Doronicum pardalianches

The garden is principally maintained by the Hafod Estate manager Dave Newnham and his assistant Simon Boussetta.  There are also regular Volunteer Weeding Days, the next of which will be on Friday 19 July and Friday 23 August.  Garden maintenance is vital and more loyal volunteers are always needed.  Volunteers bring their preferred weeding tools, and are rewarded with tea and coffee and a keen sense of achievement!  They have been very enjoyable days.

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The Foxglove Fair at Hafod

by the Curious Scribbler

The Foxglove Fair at Hafod

Hafod has come along way from its derelict state in 1994.  The walks and bridges are all now restored and it is prized by many people for its its quiet tranquillity, its vistas and waterfalls and the three walled gardens at its core.

This coming weekend that tranquillity will be, for some hours, interrupted by an event much anticipated in the community.  A large marquee has blossomed in Mrs Johnes’ Flower Garden, and on Saturday  evening it will host Music in the Marquee, a ticketed event at which food and drink will be available along with  entertainment by two local bands, the Hornettes and The Hicksters.

The Hornettes and The Hicksters

On Sunday the Foxglove Fair runs from 10.30 to 6pm.  There will be 40 outdoor stands selling crafts, plants, food and drink, while more stands devoted to sales and local organizations will be in the marquee.  Throughout the day a programme of music in the marquee will be provided by local schools and choirs and the Aberystwyth Silver Band.

It is right and proper in my view that a garden should be not merely beautiful but useful, a place of sociability and fun.  Mrs Johnes’ garden, which occupies a low lying area by a bend in the Ystwyth river, has proved its merits before, notably at a lavish wedding reception held there by Nick and Claire Lee in 2018.

Wedding marquee at Hafod

For this weekend’s events the initiative came from the tourism body Pentir Pumlumon and the Cefn Croes Windfarm Trust and has been choreographed by Tourism Development Officer Tanya Friswell and Hafod Estate Manager Dave Newnham.

I hope visitors will take time to stroll round the garden, planted, as an echo of its former splendour, with plants which were available to gardeners in the garden’s heyday in the late 18th century.  Some contemporary  visitors described Mrs Johnes’ Garden as an American Garden.  At this time fashionable recent introductions were chiefly from the eastern side of the USA.  The rich variety of Japanese and Chinese flowers and shrubs familiar in gardens today had yet to be discovered.

Just ten years ago this garden was barely discernable, swamped by a mature plantation of sitka spruce.  Huge earthmovers and diggers extracted the stumps, lifting and shaking them of earth as the weeder shakes a groundsel.

In 2009 the sitka spruce plantation was removed and the garden restoration began

The  forest road was re-routed round the margin of the old garden, and the dry stone walls repaired and topped with moss.

In Mrs Johnes’ day the lawn would have been ornamented with many island beds brilliant with flowers.  It is well described by B.H. Malkin (The Scenery, Antiquities and Bibliography of South Wales published 1804) “A gaudy flower garden, with its wreathing and fragrant plats bordered by shaven turf, with a smooth gravel walk carried around, is dropped, like an ornamental gem among wild and towering rocks, in the very heart of boundless woods. The spot contains about two acres, swelling gently to meet the sunbeams, and teeming with every variety of shrub and flower”.

The modern restoration has the original circular gravel path but the ornamental borders are confined to the perimeter of the garden.  Those fragrant, gaudy plats would require a great deal of gardeners’ time, especially when the ‘shaven turf’ was all mowed by scythe.  The present arrangement still requires regular effort by garden volunteers, but also allows Hafod to welcome the occasional big event, and play a full part in the community.  I intend to be there.

August 2018 Volunteers spread extra mulch on the border

The garden volunteers meet on Fridays: this year weeding dates are planned for 31 May, 28 June, 19 July, 23 August, 3 October.  More volunteers are always welcome, and will find tea and biscuits and a warm welcome in the garden from 10 am till 4pm.

 

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